Time for some Mound Musings A La Carte
As the season progresses, sometimes small things fall through the cracks. The column might focus on the Futures Game or non-waiver deadline deals, and it seems like there are too few opportunities to just throw out some interesting tidbits about pitchers who may be surprising us this season. The observations, and surprises, can be good, they can be bad or sometimes they are a mixture of both. That said, this seemed like a good week to just make some comments on pitchers making us take notice as we head down the stretch. Let's take a look.
Ivan Nova (New York Yankees)
Good: I will admit I have only had a brief look at Nova a couple times this year. Like the opportunities to comment on pitchers, there are challenging barriers to watching all of them - so many arms, and so little time! In Nova's case, his current run relies heavily on a small sample. He's logged only 73 innings with the Yankees, and the first few, wrapped around a trip back to the minors, were nothing special. He still walks a few too many, he can be a bit too hittable and he has only recently started missing many bats so it could be too early to move him up on the food chain. I do like that his home-run rate has dropped considerably - that is critical if you are prone to allowing base runners, because one mistake with men on can crush an ERA. He is scheduled to pitch Friday, and I hope to take another look.
Danny Hultzen (Seattle Mariners)
Bad: Have I mentioned that I absolutely hate shoulder injuries? OK, have I already mentioned in this week's column that I hate them? It would be rare for me not to have grumbled about them very recently. That's how Hultzen makes my list of pitchers I was really looking for big things from this season. He has great stuff, polish and he was moving quickly into the Mariners' current mix. He started well in April at Triple-A Tacoma, but was diagnosed with a strained rotator cuff. There was no structural damage found, but he didn't make it back until July, made one very solid start and was shut down again. We won't see him this year, and any time a shoulder is involved, there is always fear of recurring problems. Seattle is working on adjustments to his mechanics to try and reduce the stress, but that can be a drawn out process and changes could impact his effectiveness down the road. I hate to see injuries in general, but shoulder woes are the worst.
Ian Kennedy (San Diego Padres)
Mixed: He is one of those guys in the good and bad category. First of all, it typically takes a lot for me to get really excited about a finesse pitcher. There is so little room for error, and since almost every pitcher goes through periods of command issues, these guys can be dangerous. Kennedy showed me enough to make the list with his command and his mound demeanor. He struggled with his command for a while, and his home-run rate jumped in relationship to his percentage of mistakes. I thought he would smooth things out sooner (that's the bad part), but his velocity is stable, his motion is still solid, he still has the attack-mentality and he is now pitching in a much friendlier environment - all on the good side of the ledger. I remain bullish on his future.
Hyun-Jin Ryu (Los Angeles Dodgers)
Good: I'll admit I didn't see this level of success coming for him. I hadn't seen much of him before he came to the United States from Korea, so I had to base a lot of my early expectations on what I was able to see this spring. He looked out of shape – OK he still looks out of shape – and his pitches were, for lack of a better word, ordinary. Now, well into the season, his pitches have more bite, and what has really impressed me is his ability to change speeds, and move the ball around in the strike zone. I'm still not completely convinced he can maintain his current level of performance given his raw stuff, but he appears creative enough to get the best out of what he has. With an organization known for quality pitching, that could make him relatively valuable.
A.J. Griffin (Oakland A's)
Bad: It probably seems strange to say someone is on the "bad" sheet when they have compiled a 10-8 record with a 1.10 WHIP, and a respectable 3.91 ERA, but I thought Griffin might take it up a notch this season. Those numbers aren't bad, but there are some alarming things to keep in mind. Griffin pitches half his games in one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in baseball, yet he has allowed a league-leading 28 home runs in just 147 innings. That's awful, and worse, it suggests we haven't seen the worst of his possible trials. He lives on throwing strikes, and that's commendable, but he is one of those guys who may actually throw too many strikes. He has slightly below average stuff (his fastball is high 80s) so he better be able to nibble and stay away from the middle of the plate. The high home run totals suggests his mistakes could result in ugly innings, and that scares me away for the long haul.
Jeff Locke (Pittsburgh Pirates)
Mixed: About four years ago when he was in the Braves system he was on my list of arms to watch. He wasn't high on the list, but then it's a pretty exclusive list. He has surprised everyone with a stellar beginning to his major league career, and I do think he has the makeup to be at least moderately successful. He has a fair fastball with good run, and his curve and change are still improving, so there is some good here, but his stuff has not progressed as much as I had hoped, and he is getting by with the help of a somewhat deceptive motion. He has better command of the strike zone than he has shown, and that will need to be there for him to continue getting players out at this level. He's not going to be an ace, but there is some upside.
Matt Harvey (New York Mets), Patrick Corbin (Arizona Diamondbacks), Jose Fernandez (Miami Marlins)
Saving the best for last: I wanted to save the best surprises of the season for last, but I found it hard to pick just one, so you get three. These guys were all on the watchlist as potential impact arms, but they have exceeded even my expectations. And the best part is, there is every chance they will continue with their successful starts. Harvey found that command of a 96-mph fastball can take you a long way when you have quality breaking pitches and a decent change. Corbin isn't overpowering, and none of his four pitches are really exceptional, but very good is good enough when you can confidently throw any pitch, in any count, in any situation. I thought he would be a very good and reliable starting pitcher, and he has surpassed that. I really don't think he can continue to perform at his current level, but the drop-off, if there is one, could be fairly slight and that makes him welcome in my rotation. There wasn't much to get excited about in Miami as the season began, but Fernandez changed all that. The Marlins have quietly collected some young arms with very high upside, including Nathan Eovaldi, Jacob Turner and Fernandez, but this guy is wowing people already. He's still just 21 and he runs a fastball up there in the mid-90s while mixing in a curve that can make your eyes water. And, he generally throws them for strikes.
Last week when the Astros dealt Jose Veras to the Tigers, I went against the grain and said I thought Chia-Jen Lo might be a sleeper to collect some saves in Houston. The favorite to step into the role, Jose Cisnero, was promptly used in the eighth inning of a game, and Josh Fields and Lo pitched in the ninth. No guarantees, but I still think I'd buy Lo here. ... Earlier this week, the Angels released Ryan Madson. They apparently think he won't make it back this year, and he will be a free agent this offseason, so his release is not a major move. He has struggled to come back from Tommy John surgery, and he will no doubt have to prove himself healthy next season before he will even be considered for an end-game assignment. ... I was a little surprised to see the Dodgers sign Brian Wilson, but then they do have deep pockets (they gave Brandon League a lot of money when they had a much better option in house). There is no way he should ever challenge a healthy Kenley Jansen for the closer's gig, but then the same could have been said about League. ... Tom Wilhelmsen is again out as the closer in Seattle, and it looks like Danny Farquhar is the new flavor of the week. Farquhar has decent stuff, albeit some of his success is deception-driven when he alters his arm slot. He was lucky enough to be going well when opportunity knocked so he'll be the guy as long as he performs. He may have a short leash, and he may even give way at times to lefty Oliver Perez when the situation demands, but if you are scrambling for saves, he could be a source for a little while at least. ... The Mets placed Bobby Parnell on the disabled list, and David Aardsma may be the most likely sub-par fill-in, but they could use a committee with guys like LaTroy Hawkins making it a pure guessing game. This looks like a desperation only scenario for fantasy owners to avoid if at all possible.